The central tenet of mass marketing is that it “works” by dropping messages into large groups of people. Whether it’s the pulpit, the stage, the stadium or mass media, the best advertising can do is a one-to-many paradigm. It doesn’t matter who or what these groups are; what matters is the size of the gathering, because the more eyeballs, the greater the likelihood of “hitting the target.” It was the wonder of this that drove newspapers from their activist, partisan nests in the late 19th Century and birthed the absurd notion of “objectivity.” The crowd had to be large, diverse and passive, not small, strident and active.
Making money became the fundamental reason for media, and industrial age managers began to see their news customers as a mass instead of people. It is this idea that’s being turned on its head today. People can be smart. Masses, to be effective, are best considered dumb. Whether it’s the audience, the readers, the listeners, the viewers or whatever, what we see is a vast sea of faceless “consumers” held captive by the breathtaking marvel of our content and into which we can drop messages that they neither want nor need. And, of course, people will pay us to deliver those messages.
Along comes the Web and shatters that perfect money machine, because it’s not a one-to-many paradigm. The Web is a 3-way phenomenon — down, up and sideways — and it’s much more suited to direct and content marketing than mass marketing. This is causing a huge conflict for those whose money comes the old fashioned way.
For example, Shawn Riegsecker, the founder and president of big online ad network Centro, told eMarketer last week that “brands increasingly pushing to pinpoint their exact target audience” is a “fool’s errand.” The quote caught my attention, because Centro is THE giant in the non-targeting ad game — the old money machine — a pertinent fact that eMarketer left out of its interview (Wait a minute, Shawn. Isn’t your company the main benefactor of a purely reach-based ad model?). Centro commands big money from ad agencies and dictates which sites in the market get paid based on their reach and often old school, run-of-site CPMs. The company is at the very heart of the Madison Avenue illusion that the Web is just another playing field for mass marketing.
We’re driving ourselves insane by trying to get to the right audience when close enough is good enough.
Right. Riegsecker is to ad innovation what the New York Times is to new journalism. Everything’s fine. Now just shut up and send us your check.
For sure, Centro offers targeting, but its bread and butter is dumb masses. Notice also that he references sellers as “brands,” another moniker compliments of the mass marketing industry. It’s all about “brands” selling into big, dumb audiences, not products and services being sold to human beings. Ad networks and agencies are the middlemen of this sophisticated big money machine, and the Web finds all middlemen to be inefficient. This, too, is driving people nuts, especially those whose livelihoods depend on status quo maintenance.
He’s partially correct in that a lot of people are trying very hard to find the “perfect” target, but a lot of that is driven by businesses who view the Web more as a lead generator than a brand lift mechanism. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t stop the ad industry from playing defense against the direct marketing magic of the Web’s data. There’s simply too much money at stake. As I’ve said here often, however, that money is living on borrowed time, because advertisers are themselves becoming their own forms of media companies, and nobody has any idea where it’s all going. Meanwhile, those with skin in the old game keep fighting to defend their model, and that’s a problem, because every day you play defense is another day you could be playing offense in this age of disruptive innovation.
Gordon Borrell, who studies these trends in online advertising, agrees that “advertisers need to stop fretting over the absolute perfect audience target or metric and get their message out to the best possible target.” He adds, however, that “getting as close to the audience ‘truth’ as possible is more or less a mandate with digital media, and I don’t want to see an end to that quest.”
Borrell noted that digital data is the real problem for traditional media.
We all know how traditional media believe that it’s all about size. They’ve railed against measurements that make them look puny while embracing other measurements that prove their dominance. With the Internet, I suppose it boils down to advertisers wanting to hit that exact target — which seems to be getting smaller and smaller — rather than buying mass. So therein rests the big conflict: a big dumb audience versus a small group of wallet-ready buyers.
So Riegsecker may be right from his perspective, but it’s exactly that perspective that’s being challenged by the data-centric Web. This is why those companies who’ve invested in data — the best examples being Google, Amazon and Facebook — have such a big future leg up on their old school competitors. As ad money continues to move to the Web, it’s going to want specificity, not just big, dumb audiences.
The real conundrum in all of this is that we’re in a slow transition period, so mass marketing is still extremely valuable. The smart companies who’ve long depended on dumb masses, however, are also getting their feet wet in the other, even though it feels uncomfortable and a lot like competing with ourselves. The stakes are simply too high not to diversify our business models, and the people formerly known as the audience are now in charge anyway.
The real fool’s errand, therefore, is acting as though it’s otherwise.